With the recent explosion of content marketing, more and more non-media organizations are producing content. To be great at content marketing, you have to write great content, build a loyal audience, educate that audience, convert them to paying customers, and support them with even more content. All of this content means that the competition to get your content read has never been greater. Yet, many organizations have been slow to understand how Google is evaluating their content in organic search, which is critical to getting the most out of your search marketing and content marketing campaigns.
Link authority has been, and still continues to be, the primary driver for high ranking content on search engines. But recently, Google has been moving away from only looking at links by adding new algorithms that focus on “topical authority”.
MarketMuse founder Aki Balogh spoke with the digital marketing experts at McDougall Interactive about topical authority and the future of content creation.
Listen to full podcast here (15 mins).
Below are some key highlights from the discussion. This has been paraphrased and additional information has been added for context.
Hummingbird’s Impact on the Search Landscape
Google released a new update in 2013 called Hummingbird that took the first major step towards evaluating content based on natural language by analyzing the meaning between related terms.
Prior to Hummingbird, Google’s algorithms were based primarily on keywords and the number of links on these keywords. Other weighted factors include keyword location (i.e keywords in titles and 1st paragraph are better), importance of inbound linking sites, number of social media shares and site speed among many other factors.
A formula that weights and scores these artificial factors was the best approach for Google since they weren’t very good at understanding content on a semantic level. The problem with Google’s algorithms is that it could be gamed, which encouraged some to employ ‘black hat SEO’ tactics to exploit these vulnerabilities.
For content creators, SEO poses an added challenge, since growing website traffic wasn’t just about writing quality content but also consisted of spending countless hours employing the various SEO techniques required to get the content noticed.
Google realizes there’s a better approach and is developing– and continues to iterate on– a new way of evaluating content quality and relevance. The first hints of this new methodology was baked into Hummingbird in 2013. Ironically it’s been over a year and half since it’s release, which is estimated to have affected close to 90% of searches (according to Matt Cutts, Google’s search guru), yet it’s still not very well understood in the industry.
What We Know About Hummingbird
We know from their patent filings that a major goal for Google search is to fully understand user intent. This is very challenging, especially as more and more searches are performed via spoken language on mobile devices. Queries are not just keywords anymore but are often conversational phrases and questions.
Once the user’s intent is determined, serving up timely, relevant, interesting and accurate content is the second half of the equation. Doing this well involved semantic analysis, which is the study of meaning and the relationship between words, phrases and other signifiers (for example, my 3 month old Rottweiler eats “puppy food”).
To better grapple with this, Google’s building a knowledge graph to connect the dots between related terms and determine how these related terms lead to meaning and intent. Synonyms are one part of this, and Google’s been incorporating synonyms as a key piece of the equation for many years. But as the next step, with Hummingbird, Google has introduced additional elements such as substitute terms and co-occurrence.
To demonstrate the effect, Web Behavior Specialists conducted a test. For instance, the words “rice dish” and “rice recipe” were compared before and after Hummingbird. The results, as illustrated below, show the comparable results jumped from 2/10 to 7 /10 of the top results. Put another way, since “rice dish” and “rice recipe” are comparable terms they probably should share the same results. Before they didn’t. Now they do.
Source: Web Behavior Specialists
For a human it’s not difficult to identify, well-written, concise, dense, informative and interesting content, but how does an algorithm determine this?
Topical Authority is the New Driver of Search Ranking
It is surmised that as Google gets smarter about semantics, link relevance will decrease over time. We speculate that links will probably never go away — inbound links are, and always will be, signals of relevance and authority — but going forward there will be an additional emphasis on topical authority.
Topical authority could be described as “depth of expertise” and is only gained over time by consistently writing high-quality, comprehensive content about a topic that covers the topic holistically. Just repackaging a similar article over and over by regurgitating the same ideas won’t produce desired results.
Topical authority equates to depth. For instance to be an authority on the very broad topic of marketing, one can think of many topics that are relevant to marketing like “SEO”, “blogging”, “email marketing”, “lead generation” etc. Each of those topics have other relevant topics: “blogging” = “CMS”, “content creation”, “SEO”. Since “marketing” is such a broad topic, the list of relevant topics are vast and endless. So going forward, those organizations that flush out a topic with the most depth will own the future traffic flow for related searches.
In 2014, Searchmetrics published a list of critical factors for Google’s search algorithm, ranking these factors by importance. Relevant Terms ranked as the #2 ranking factor on their list.
Source: Search Metrics
So if topical authority is defined as a website’s “depth of expertise”, how do you know where your content stands? How do you know what topics you’re missing today? That’s where MarketMuse can help.
Build Topical Authority with MarketMuse
MarketMuse is the leading tool to help you plan and execute a topical authority strategy.
Given a primary keyword that you want to rank for, MarketMuse analyzes top ranking content to identify the related keywords (topics) that you should have in your content. After crawling your site, it tells you what topical gaps you have in your content.
MarkeMuse doesn’t write the content — it still needs to be interesting and unique — but it enables you to identify what your gaps are and prioritize which topics you should address first.
An example of how this works has been applied to GNC, a leading authority in health and nutrition, as illustrated below. GNC wants to be an authority on “sports nutrition” so we analyzed that topic against gnc.com which has more than 400,000 pages. The results show those related topics that have been well represented (green) and the topics that should be beefed up with more content (red).
“Sports drinks” clearly stands out as a gap. To take it a step further, you can then analyze “sports drinks” to see what terms are related to that.
MarketMuse identifies the related topics you wish to build authority and points out the gaps in the content (i.e. topics that are currently underrepresented on your site).
Topical Authority = A Better Internet
In summary, a quote from the podcast:
“When you identify certain areas where you can be the authority, the expert, and write content in an interesting way, that’s a fantastic content asset.
That asset will get you high in search ranking. You’ll get a lot of great traffic from it. You’ll get a lot of exposure. That’s the great thing about Hummingbird and where search is moving, it’s moving away from gaming the system, [or] where the companies with the biggest budgets win.
It’s really moving toward, who or what is the absolute best source of information on any given topic. Everyone benefits. The Internet basically becomes a better place because of this.”